I’ve long been fascinated by the image of the Tree of Death, parallel to the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden and cryptically referred to in mystical texts explaining the Hebrew Bible:
And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the Tree of Life also in the midst of the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:9).
Come and behold: as soon as night falls, the Tree of Death rules in the world and the Tree of Life disappears high above. Then the Tree of Death is the sole ruler in the universe, and all inhabitants of the world taste of death (Zohar III:119a).
The image, and today’s gruesome Columbine anniversary, provide an occasion to reflect on Darwinian evolution’s social consequences, from school shootings to Nazi racism and more.
Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution with its Tree of Life is applauded by most sophisticated Americans and Europeans as a scientific idea pure and simple, without the aura of dread and terror that, properly, should surround it in our minds.
Why should we so regard it? Not necessarily because of any judgment about whether the idea is right or wrong as science, but rather because of the uncanny way evolution has had of supplying the rationale and creating the backdrop for the most twisted, monstrous social movements that have sprung up in Western culture in the past century and half.
On April 20, 1999, two boys at Columbine High School in Colorado massacred 12 fellow students and a teacher, wounding 23 as well before shooting themselves. The 10th anniversary with its morbid recollections is upon us, but there’s one aspect of the horrible memory that you can be sure you will not hear much about.
When one of the assailants, Eric Harris, was autopsied, the medical examiner found that under his black trench coat the boy had on a white t-shirt emblazoned with a peculiar slogan. The slogan was “Natural Selection.” It was later reported but little commented upon that, on his website, Harris had written, among other paeans to the Darwinian mechanism, “Natural SELECTION!!!!!! God damn it’s the best thing that ever happened to the earth. Getting rid of all the stupid and weak organisms…but it’s all natural!!! YES!”
Columbine became the most notorious of school shootings, inspiring imitators including Pekka Eric Auvinen, a Finnish high school student. On November 7, 2007, Auvinen showed up at his own school, Jokela High in Tuusula, Finland, with a small-caliber handgun. He proceeded to massacre seven fellow students and the school headmistress, wounding ten others, before shooting himself.
On a website, it was later learned, he described himself as an “anti-social social-Darwinist,” declaring that “I am prepared to fight and die for my cause. I, as a natural selector, will eliminate all who I see unfit, disgraces of human race and failures of natural selection.” The youth also posted videos on YouTube, some dominated by Nazi imagery, others evoking more recent stories of mass slaughter, including Columbine.
In media discussion of both stories, the ready availability of firearms was the theme most frequently commented upon and lamented. Protesting against the national “gun culture” was the point of Michael Moore’s critically acclaimed and commercially successful documentary film Bowling for Columbine. As in the United States, gun-ownership in Finland is common. News reports about the Jokela attack emphasized this detail.
Harris and Auvinen picked up their interest in what we may call applied Darwinism from the skinhead and Neo-Nazi subculture, which is full of similar talk. Whether on aggressively Hitlerian web sites like Stormfront.org or in the comparatively restrained writings of the popular Louisiana racist David Duke, discussions of evolution and white supremacy are a common theme.
As a culture, we have trained ourselves not to notice such things. Yet theoreticians of racist imperialism, Marxism, Hitlerism, and modern pseudo-scientific eugenics have all cited Darwinian theory, its subsuming of man among the kingdom of the animals, as an inspiration. I’ve written a lot on these themes, conveniently collected over at Evolution News & Views.
Closer to home, in America in the 21st century, evolutionary theory lends support to moral relativism and the increasingly widespread notion that a human being possesses no more innate dignity than any other beast. Evolutionary theory has undermined the once universal belief in human exceptionalism, the idea that there is something inherently sacred in being a human. That belief once granted the right of protection to unborn children, handicapped adults, and disabled senior citizens.
People are blunter about this in Europe than we are in the U.S. Thus Baroness Mary Warnock, hailed by the London Daily Telegraph as “Britain’s leading moral philosopher,” argues that Alzheimer patients have a “duty to die.” In a 2008 interview, she said that assisted suicide for Britain’s 700,000 citizens suffering from dementia is the right course.
Borrowing language familiar to veterinarians, Lady Warnock commented, “I think that’s the way the future will go, putting it rather brutally, you’d be licensing people to put others down.” In a 2008 book, Easeful Death: Is There a Case for Assisted Suicide? (Oxford University Press), Lady Warnock explained that “Gradually, since Darwin, we have become accustomed to placing human beings among the other animals, and all animals among the rest of nature.” Such thinking, though it retains its power to shock, represents the bioethical frontier.
This widespread failure to distinguish between people and animals is a moral disease we may call animalism. Both the elite and mass media are rife with it. When New York governor Eliot Spitzer was disgraced and forced out of office by a 2008 prostitution scandal, New York Times science reporter Natalie Angier leapt into the fray of the controversy with an article pointing out in detail how common adultery and even sex-for-hire are in the animal kingdom.
The star authority in the piece was a chortling University of Washington psychology professor, David Barash, author of The Myth of Monogamy, who pointed out that the only animal that seems not to cheat on its mate is a kind of flatworm that resides in the gills of some freshwater fish. “Sexual promiscuity is rampant throughout nature, and true faithfulness a fond fantasy,” reasoned Angier, so why the big fuss about Spitzer’s dalliances?
Darwinism’s modern day advocates prefer to forget that ideas have consequences. Yet even a scientific idea may have disastrous consequences, as Darwin’s earliest critics foresaw. One such prophet was Darwin’s own professor of natural science when he was at Cambridge, Adam Sedgwick.
In a letter to Darwin dated December 24, 1859, just after the Origin of Species had been published, Sedgwick warned that if the new book were successful in making its case, then “humanity, in my mind, would suffer a damage that might brutalize it, and sink the human race into a lower grade of degradation than any into which it has fallen since its written records tell us of its history.”
A bit melodramatic, but otherwise on the mark. Whatever its merits as a scientific idea, evolution’s Tree of Life has been revealed in many ways, in the most practical and painful terms, as a Tree of Death.